What is authentic Chinese food? The question may seem simple at first glance, but for many Chinese Americans, authenticity can vary widely depending on who you ask. For me, Chinese food has always been a way to connect with the history and culture of my immigrant parents. But in my search for “real” Chinese food, I’ve discovered that my identity as an American has as much to do with my idea of authenticity as does my Chinese heritage.
These issues of authenticity and cultural identity are at the heart of the Museum of Chinese in America’s (MOCA) newest exhibit on Chinese food, which opens on October 6, 2016 in New York City. Called Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America, the exhibit will feature a multimedia video installation depicting over 30 chefs from across the country of Chinese and Asian American descent as they talk about their relationship and experience with their own version of Chinese food. They include celebrity chefs like Anita Lo and Martin Yan and restaurant owners like Danny Bowien as well as several generational home cooks.
“The oral histories of each chef are weaved together where it’s almost like they are having a conversation together, talking about their experiences with Chinese food — whether it’s about tackling the perception of Chinese food in America, or their own personal relationships and memories of food from childhood,” says Sophie Lo, the museum’s public programs and marketing associate. The narrative emphasizes the personal stories of each chef, revealing how geography, tradition, creativity, and family have shaped the way they cook.
Herb Tam, MOCA’s Curator and Director of Exhibitions, believes the exhibit is especially important as more and more Chinese Americans are grappling with food identity and sharing their experiences on social media. “Given this new environment for Chinese food, we wanted to give people an opportunity to have conversations about this subject,” says Tam. “We want people to think for themselves how food represents who they are.”
A lot of these conversations center on the question of authenticity — what it is and whether or not it exists — and MOCA aims to bring this debate to the forefront for its visitors. “We’re not trying to provide one answer about authenticity,” says Tam.
Indeed, many of the chefs come from diverse backgrounds, and answer the question for themselves in unique ways. Small restaurant owners who don’t live in major urban cities, for instance, need to be concerned about what their customers’ tastes are, often creating dishes that are an amalgam of American and Chinese flavors such as beef and tomato chow mein.
“You could say that they created inauthentic versions of Chinese food,” Tam says, “but to them, the idea of authenticity isn’t about creating something that’s traditional, and authenticity may not even be that important to them. It’s more about a survival mentality, an approach to your food that’s more about your customers.”
Then you have chefs like Jeff Gao and Cori Xiang, both first-generation immigrants who have opened up Chinese restaurants in Colorado and Texas, respectively, and aim to provide a traditional approach to Chinese food. For them, loyalty to what they think of as real Chinese food was a priority.
Providing yet another perspective are the home cooks, whose experiences with food are more of a personal nature. Yvette Lee, a home cook from Honolulu, Hawaii, talks about making congee for family members on special occasions, and how for her, congee is the dish that connects her to her Chinese heritage. It is these specific food memories from generations of family members who grew up in China that make home cooks such an important part of the conversation. “There are a lot of those kinds of stories, where what they cook is for their families, and the connection between food and family is what’s essential when they talk about cooking Chinese food,” says Tam.
In addition to the video installation, the exhibit will feature a large table setting in the center of the room that showcases ceramic artwork representing 18 different regional cooking styles of China. “I think the common narrative when we talk about Chinese food in America is that there are only a few different cuisines people know about,” Lo says, like Sichuan and Hunan. One of the exhibit’s goals is to dispel the notion that Chinese food is wholly uniform and emphasize the diversity that exists within China’s cuisines. The interpretive ceramic sculptures, crafted by artists Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang, will depict the geographical, historical, and cultural characteristics of each region. For example, porcelain and gold luster will highlight the fine dining of Shanghai, whereas mountains and street food will represent Taiwan.
The title of the exhibit itself refers to a common saying in Chinese, and conveys the importance of balance and harmony in both food and in life. Sweet and bitter, joy and hardship — all go hand in hand in the lives of Chinese Americans as we continue to carve out our personal identity in this country while eating the food of our culture.
Elena Zhang is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her writing can be found in HelloGiggles, Bustle, The Mary Sue and PopMatters, among other publications.